The Coldest War

A Review of A Brief History of the Cold War
by John Hughes-Wilson

Author Biography

John Hughes-Wilson is a British commentator and historian on defense subjects. In recognition of his wartime heroics, Hughes-Wilson was appointed the President of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. In 2002 he was elected Archives Bi-Fellow at Churchill College. John Hughes-Wilson retired as a Colonel on NATO’s Political staff and was involved with several crises of the Cold War.

The extensive conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States during the second half of the 20th century is known as the Cold War. Colonel John Hughes-Wilson’s A Brief History of The Cold War analyzes the many conflicts that occur between the United States and the Soviet Union. This book also takes the views of different people and how they reacted to the actions of the Soviet Union and the United States. The author writes not only about the politicians that were involved but the millions of average citizens who lived through the Cold War. The novel examines in depth the main figures of the Cold War. As Hughes-Wilson writes, “Millions of lives all over the world teetered on the edge of a precipice. Two men alone held the fate of the world in their hands.”1 This shows the how deep the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and also how much power each country had. Overall, this history covers many of the important events that make up the Cold War.

The first part of the book discusses the roots of communism in Russia and the growth of the Soviet Union during the first part of the century, as well as the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union before World War Two. The introduction primarily deals with why the novel was written. In the introduction the author writes, “…astonishingly, there are very few books on the whole story of the Cold War aimed at the general public.”2 In the first chapters pertain to the development of the Soviet Union and how the communist party in Russia came into existence. The Marxist government in which Lenin wanted to establish, Stalin’s rise to power and his purges are described as well. A surprising Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany is also noted because it was not expected by the world. The gradual conflict that was starting to happen between the Soviet Union and the United States was becoming more and more apparent as the world went to war.

After describing the beginnings of the Soviet Union Hughes-Wilson writes about the uneasy alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War Two. The United States and the Soviet Union, although allies during the war, began to disagree about post-war matters toward the end of the Second World War. One of the major disagreements was over division of Europe and parts of Asia. When the United States released the atom bombs the Soviet Union felt threatened and this prompted the Soviet arms build up after the Second World War. Hughes-Wilson writes, “Whatever happened, Stalin was determined to match the USA’s monopoly and build his own atom bomb.”3 The quote shows that after the United States had dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki Stalin wanted to break the United States’ monopoly on the atom bomb. The United States was caught off guard when China was taken over by the communists in China because the United States had supported the Nationalists in China. After the communist take-over of China had occurred North Korea invaded South Korea. The ending of the Korean War was a useless one because neither country gained any substantial victories and 5 million Koreans lost their lives during the conflict. Stalin died in 1953; his death caused disarray in the Kremlin because there was no successor named successor to Stalin.

The next section explains the deadlock between the United States and the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. “Both protagonists in the Cold War now possessed hydrogen bombs and credible means of delivering them. The balance of terror meant that not only could they obliterate each other – they could destroy the very globe on which humanity walked and lived.”4 This means that the post World War Two world was just as dangerous as it was during the war. It also heightened the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union because there is a constant struggle to get into power. After Stalin’s death Khrushchev gradually gained a power base in the communist party. The author writes, “The truth was that Khrushchev was a complex, highly intelligent individual whose personal story illustrates the history of Russia after the Revolution.”5 Many people during this period felt that Khrushchev was not a very intelligible person, but Khrushchev was actually the opposite. In 1956 two major conflicts challenged the rule of power. These two major events were the crisis in Hungary and the crisis in the Suez Canal. The Suez crisis brought division in the Middle East. Many believed that the Soviet Union would help the Middle East by standing up to the imperialist British and French. This put the Soviet Union in a situation that made the Soviet Union much more appealing to some Middle East countries. The situation in Hungary was in chaos because of the student riot in Budapest. The events in Hungary and the Middle East triggered a series of events that would challenge the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Most of this part of the book deals with what the Cold War world was like after the ending of World War Two.

The concluding part of the book deals with the Cold War during the 1960’s to the end of the conflict. The new United States president John Kennedy approved a plan for Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and to take over Castro’s government. Kennedy bailed out air support for the exiles fearing that the Cubans would identify the air cover from the United States. The decision to abort air cover was a disastrous decision that leads to a failure for the invaders. The event that nearly leads the world to Armageddon was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The author writes, “If the Berlin crisis of 1961 was not bad enough, no other single event brought home the real dangers of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War to so many people as the Cuban Missile Crisis.”6 The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the reality of the Cold War to the people in the United States. Khrushchev thought that Kennedy was young and inexperienced as a president and did not know how to handle situations properly this was one of the reasons why Khrushchev was willing to go to nuclear war with the United States. At the end of the crisis both countries had achieved their strategic goals without having to go to war. One of the greatest losses to the United States was the conflict in Vietnam because South Vietnam eventually fell apart after the United States gradually sent troops back home.

Toward the end of the 1970’s relations between the United States and Iran decreased dramatically. The Shah of Iran declared that the United States was the deadly enemy of Islam, an action that shaped the United States’ relations with Islamic countries ever since. The Soviet Union experienced its own “Vietnam” when they decided to invade Afghanistan. The Afghani rebels who were supported by the United States stopped this invasion. The United States supported the rebels by supplying them with weapons from the United States. The concluding section of the book shows the Cuban Missile Crisis, United States involvement with Vietnam, Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. From the 1970’s and on the Soviet Union was gradually decreasing its power in government and the economy.

The author’s thesis in this book explains the nature of the Cold War and how the cold war affected the lives of many people around the world. The thesis also explains how many normal people carried on with their live without dwelling on the Cold War itself. Sometimes the Cold War would affect their very existence. In the thesis the author also says that the Cold War was constantly being fought. There were always soldiers ready to fight, planes ready to launch, and submarines constantly on the lookout. The Cold War was a conflict in which everyone in the world was affecedt by in one way or another. In the thesis the author states, “The Cold War did not only deform lives, it deformed whole societies, as well as costing a fortune.”7 This quote explains the impact that the Cold War had on people around the world. The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had a major impact that affected everyone in the world.

In this book Hughes-Wilson does not make many assumptions and does not take a firm point of view because this book is a “brief history.” John Hughes-Wilson was an Intelligence Officer for Britain and NATO. But his position as an Intelligence Officer for Britain and NATO could change his view on how he views the decision in which the Soviet Union made. Because the author worked with NATO and the British his views on the Soviet Union could be altered toward what the British or NATO favored. The author’s main purpose in writing this book was to write a book in which people who were interested in the Cold War could read instead of a history. In the conclusion the author writes, “The most deadly problem of the Cold War was always ideology armed with power. That danger has not gone away.”8 Many problems of the Cold War can still be seen today, we still deal with many problems left over from the cold war. The problems of the Cold War can still been seen today in countries such as North Korea and Cuba. This book could also have been written to warn us about the dangers of a conflict like the Cold War.

A Brief History of The Cold War is written extremely well and has much strength and some weaknesses. Overall, the organization of this book is excellent. The book is organized in chronological order and is easy to understand what each chapter is going to be about. The book is written in a clear and concise manner so that the novel is easily understood and the novel is always to the point. Another strength is how the author talks about many of the important figures of the Cold War in depth. Besides the important figures of the Cold War the author also talks about the civilians in the country and what they dealt with. One of the weaknesses about the book is that the book does not go in depth with other parts of the Cold War. The novel goes in depth with important figures of the Cold War but less with the events. Overall this is an excellent novel and is written in an easy to read way, but the novel does not go into detail with some of the events of the Cold War.

The author describes the sixties as the critical point of the Cold War. Many of the important events of the Cold War happened during the sixties. The Berlin Crisis between Kennedy and Khrushchev started to heat the Cold War up. The Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the existence of humanity during the sixties. The humiliating defeat in Vietnam for the United States changed society in the United States. The author writes, “From Washington, and from Moscow too, it looked as though America had suffered the biggest defeat of the Cold War.”9 The conflict in Vietnam left impressions on both the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States during the sixties was unstable due to the many Cold War events of the sixties. These events would change society around the world forever.

The sixties was a period of change in the United States due to many fears of the Cold War. The Cold War became a harsh reality to the civilian population of the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The author writes in the introduction, “At times like the Cuban Missile or Berlin crises, the world held its breath. The threat of a nuclear shooting war was always out there, somewhere.”10 The world constantly lived with the reality of a nuclear war. The sixties changed the way of society in the world because of the kind of war that was being waged. Because the Cold War was different type of war it changed many of the traditional viewpoints on how wars were to be fought. The Cold War that was fought during the sixties changed the way the world looked at itself. Many looked at how fragile the world was, when two countries could destroy all of humanity. This made many people think about how important the world was. In the concluding segments of the novel John Hughes-Wilson writes about the different effects of the Cold War and how the war changed our lives. The author writes in his conclusion, “The result was that the Cold War became a new kind of limited war, with restraint on both sides in a manner that harked back to the limited wars of the eighteenth century.”11 The Cold War was not a conventional war that was fought like the Korean War or the Second World War. This changed how people thought wars were fought. Colonel John Hughes-Wilson’s book A Brief History of the Cold War describes the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The novel takes the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in depth and describes the roots of the Cold War and how the conflict came into action. This book is for people who are interested in the Cold War but do not want to read a history.

review by Jeffery Fan

  1. Hughes-Wilson, John. A Brief History of the Cold War. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006, 178.
  2. Hughes-Wilson, John 2.
  3. Hughes-Wilson, John 85.
  4. Hughes-Wilson, John 122.
  5. Hughes-Wilson, John 125.
  6. Hughes-Wilson, John 178.
  7. Hughes-Wilson, John 2.
  8. Hughes-Wilson, John 376.
  9. Hughes-Wilson, John 229.
  10. Hughes-Wilson, John 2.
  11. Hughes-Wilson, John 373.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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